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The view from the platform in “Icebergs,” the summer blockbuster show at the National Building Museum, is two-fold. The perch is a cutaway erected in scaffolding in one of the exhibit’s titular floating icebergs. From this vantage point, viewers can look down over the “water line,” a thin blue mesh net hanging 20 feet high off the ground to represent the surface of an ocean. Visitors can also look up to better see the floating icebergs’ peaks, one of which rises nearly 60 feet up inside the historic Great Hall.
It’s just a bonus that the “Icebergs” platform is the best hideout from Mom.
“Come down or you have to stay here tonight,” a woman standing at ground level shouts to a rugrat lurking inside the iceberg-enclosed look-out. Foiled. “You’ll have to find a place to sleep.”
“No!” the little girl returns. In an architectural playground, she has found her Fortress of Solitude.
“It’s an amazing place!” the girl pronounces, before scampering off to one of the slides built as an exit for this particular ’berg.
Glowing reviews from unlikely sources abound these days for the Building Museum, an institution that has elbowed its way into the cultural conversation with its summer folly series. “Icebergs,” a massive installation of suspended pentahedrons and octahedrons, is the third of these follies, designed by James Corner Field Operations, the auteur of New York’s celebrated High Line as well as Cleveland’s recently debuted Public Square. The show features more than 30 of the floating crystals inside the cavernous atrium, sculptural installations that viewers will take in from below, above, and within.
“Icebergs” is wordy for a summer-splash show: The installation is filled with factoids about icebergs and their bulkier cousins, glaciers. But while these may be shrinking, D.C. exhibits are expanding. The summer series is the latest in a trend of escalating gestures at museums on and off the National Mall designed to lure viewers in record numbers.
“We’re blessed with this amazing Great Hall,” says Chase W. Rynd, director of the National Building Museum. “We realized that this was an asset we had that we weren’t fully utilizing during the entire year, and summer especially, we weren’t using. Why not take advantage of something that not very many other people have?”
Hand out heaping scoops of ice cream, and people will stick around for a side of broccoli: That’s the theory. According to the Building Museum, it’s working. Shows that run alongside the summer blockbusters have seen an uptick in attendance during the summers. At the rate they’re growing, these spectacles can create their own momentum. The Building Museum is already considering launching a winter series.
Of all the local spectacles mounted over the last five years or so, the splashiest was “Wonder,” the show that reintroduced the Renwick Gallery to viewers in November 2015 after a two-year renovation. How could you have missed it? More people saw “Wonder” than live in the District of Columbia. There was also “SONG1,” a 360-degree music and video installation projected onto the surface of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2012. Only the Building Museum, though, has made its big installations a running series.
Rynd might rather see viewers experience “Icebergs” from the second- and third-floor balconies running along the perimeter of the atrium. This is where attendees can also access the other exhibits on view at the Building Museum, shows that don’t typically draw exultations of frenzied joy from children. No one snaps a Tinder-worthy selfie with the revolutionary landscape work of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden.
D.C. is not alone in grappling with the question of whether visitor expectations and social media are shaping museums in profound ways. Art-world spectacles run the gamut, from Carsten Höller’s tubular slides (on view for a second time in London) to Cai Guo Qiang’s firework displays to Paul McCarthy’s massive inflatable butt-plug, which angry Parisians deflated after its public debut in 2014. Spectacles are a global aesthetic trend. They reflect the social and economic change seen in major world currents—from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the crash of the Great Recession. Even the butt-plug.
Locally, if there’s a concern about museums serving too many sweets and not enough vegetables, it’s that exhibits that are low on nutrition—meaning shows that lack scholarship, quietude, or the possibility of an anti-social experience—will crowd out shows of substance. Such as an elegant Blinky Palermo painting survey at the Hirshhorn, a thoughtful Oehme, van Sweden profile at the Building Museum, or the entire permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery.
Quieter shows aren’t going anywhere; in fact, museum directors say that more people are seeing them than ever before, thanks to the louder stuff. But there may be other concerns for D.C. museums, which seem prone to spectacles lately. With even larger examples looming on the calendar, it’s worth asking: Are D.C. museums having too much fun?
Two years before “Icebergs” came “The Maze,” a labyrinthine wooden structure designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, a hotshot architecture firm that also enjoyed a thoroughgoing mid-career survey at the Building Museum. It was a hit. “The Maze” opened the way for an even bigger sequel, Snarkitecture’s “The Beach,” one of the biggest museum exhibits in D.C. history, by at least two standards—visitor numbers and Instagram snaps.
“Our audiences have been growing and growing and growing,” Rynd says. “It’s hitting an audience that we wanted to appeal to more broadly. It’s using our space in a way that we never used it before. And it is also helping people to discover us, either local or national.”
Essentially: Go big or go home. But for museums, it might be closer to: Go big and go home. There is very little risk to museums in mounting physically and materially ambitious shows. This lesson isn’t obvious on its face, since blockbusters cost more money to mount and new art isn’t a guaranteed fundraiser in the same way that, say, a Frida Kahlo or Norman Rockwell show is. But the proof is in the attendance rolls: Each spectacle supported by D.C. museums has proven to be a bigger hit than the last.
“SONG1” drew more than 200,000 viewers to the Hirshhorn, according to museum estimates. Like visitors strolling through the museum’s sculpture garden, couples picnicking on the lawn don’t count toward official attendance, which is measured by clicks at the door. But throughout the entirety of the work’s three-month run, museum attendance surged. While attendance hovered around the 200,000 mark for the spring months of 2009–2011, visitorship hit a high of almost 284,000 during the same three-month run of “SONG1” in 2012.
The Building Museum has also done numbers. BIG’s “Maze” drew some 50,000 people over the course of its summer 2014 run. “The Beach” brought a tsunami of visitors, pulling in more than 183,000 people from July 2 to Sept. 5, 2015, and setting a record for museum attendance. The Building Museum considers that show an exception. “Icebergs” is more in keeping with internal projections, drawing in 40,000 viewers to date.
The one to beat, though, is Renwick’s “Wonder.” This spectacle—or really, series of sculptural installations, some rendered at larger scales than others—pulled in about 732,000 viewers over its eight-month run. Annual attendance before the renovation was about 150,000, according to the museum. Possibly viewers were drawn in by news reports and the garish LED signs that now hang outside the Second Empire building, but in all likelihood, it was digital word-of-mouth. According to the museum, posts on Twitter and Instagram tagged with #RenwickGallery, #Renwick, and so on registered 240 million impressions.
So yes, “Wonder” was a big deal for the museum.
“There are incalculable benefits when a place that has long been almost invisible in Washington’s crowded museum scene suddenly is one of the hottest destinations in town,” says Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun, the longtime director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery. “Yes, it helps with funding appeals when potential supporters say ‘Wow, the Renwick!’ instead of ‘Where’s the Renwick?’”
These shows are a big deal for D.C., too. Rynd says that the Building Museum and its neighbors, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, are working with the D.C. Business Improvement District on a cultural campaign aimed at tourists. It’s an effort to lure visitors away from the National Mall and toward other outposts in the city—to convince visitors to stick around for an extra day.
“The Mall can keep you really busy for two days,” Rynd says. “The Mall can keep you busy for months, obviously, but if you only have two or three days, you can stay on that Mall and have an amazing experience and never discover another part of Washington, D.C.”
Dupont Underground is another extension of the city’s cultural infrastructure. The underground trolley platform–cum–art venue drew more than 5,600 attendees with “Raise/Raze,” an exhibit by architects Hou de Sousa that recycled the balls from “The Beach” into stackable cubes a la Minecraft. (The show, which ran from April 30 to June 1, might’ve drawn far more viewers had the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs allowed it; capacity for the venue was restricted to 49 people at a time.)
D.C. missed a major opportunity to add to the ranks of its off-the-Mall cultural institutions when Mayor Muriel Bowser whiffed on bringing one to the historic Franklin School in downtown. Bowser’s predecessor, Mayor Vincent Gray, struck a deal with businessman and art collector Dani Levinas in 2014 to turn the historic building into the home of the Institute for Contemporary Expression—a contemporary-art center that would have mounted “Wonder”-like shows on the regular.
But in February 2015, Mayor Bowser abruptly scrapped Gray’s agreement with ICE, citing a lack of funding for the institution. It was a hollow excuse: As the deal had not yet been formally approved by the D.C. Council, Levinas had not yet launched a capital campaign. In any case, internal communications obtained by City Paper in 2015 through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development was aware that Levinas had already raised $3 million toward a $15 million goal.
In June, Levinas was elected chair of the board of the Phillips Collection, maybe the one D.C. modern art museum that has never mounted a spectacle. The fate of the Adolf Cluss–designed Franklin School, which has historic preservation status inside and out and has been abandoned since 2008, is uncertain. Given the success of “Wonder,” a program such as ICE still seems like the best use of the Franklin School, especially as it is a public use that could potentially spill out into Franklin Square, an eyesore of a city park.
For its part, the Renwick Gallery, a museum devoted to craft and making, doesn’t intend to cede the audience it has won over with contemporary art.
“The success of ‘Wonder’ has led to conversations with contemporary artists about ambitious future projects; it’s now a place where more artists want to show their work,” Broun says by email. “We’ve even had overtures about intriguing overseas collaborations, so we know the impact goes well beyond our shores.”
Museums mount monumental artworks and installations in part because viewers appreciate novelty and interactivity. The numbers bear that out. But contemporary art spaces are also simply accommodating the work that the artists are making. And those artworks are getting larger.
“Artists are thinking on a much larger scale than they ever have before,” says Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn. “You need only look at their studios.”
The growing studio ambitions of blue-chip sculptors, installation artists, and architects reflects the aesthetic evolution of those practices. But the leap in scale can also be explained by tectonic shifts in society over the last 40 years, from the implosion of the auto industry and manufacturing sector in the U.S. to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, for example, artists rushed to claim cheap rents in Kreuzberg and other neighborhoods that had been crushed by communism—much as they had once flocked to a failing Manhattan after World War II.
At the same time artists were starting to stretch their legs in cities like Berlin (or, more recently, in Shanghai), contemporary art museums the world over were rehabilitating fallow warehouse spaces as white-cube art centers. MASSMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts; SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico; MoMA P.S.1 in Queens, New York—all of these and more reflect an ambition to turn former industrial space into au courant art hubs. Dupont Underground and the High Line are related examples of adaptive reuse and tactical urbanism.
Joanna Woronkowicz, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, has worked to document the cultural side of the building boom in the U.S. between 1994 and 2008. According to her work, from 2000 to 2002 (a heady time for cultural and performing arts organizations), 87 percent of metro statistical areas with a population of 2 million or more started at least one new cultural building project. Small towns got in on the act, too: Almost one-third of MSAs of 500,000 people or fewer also initiated a new cultural building of some kind.
“When museums, especially those devoted exclusively to contemporary art, began to inhabit larger spaces, especially post-industrial spaces, then scale became a whole other phenomenon,” Chiu says. “This has led artists to think much more ambitiously about large-scale sculptural and interactive work. I think it’s as much about the artists’ own ambition and the spaces they have to play with.”
At times, contemporary art reflects these conditions precisely. See, for example, Tara Donovan’s “Untitled,” one of the nine gallery-sized sculptural works in “Wonder” (which closed in July). The piece featured index cards stacked in enormous piles resembling massive termite mounds. It was assembled painstakingly by assistants, no doubt debt-strapped graduate students and young artist netherworlders. In subtle ways, Donovan’s work shows how global resources pile up for economic elites. An artist armed with the concept alone couldn’t pull off work at Donovan’s scale. Spectacle requires support.
“SONG1” seemed to reflect a world-is-flat perspective on artwork and art-making. Doug Aitken’s wraparound video installation, which was projected onto the cylindrical surface of the Hirshhorn to awestruck audiences in 2012, featured Gen X heroes (Tilda Swinton; John Doe of the legendary L.A. punk band X) alongside Millennial stars (Devendra Banhart; Beck) crooning a standard beloved by Baby Boomers (“I Only Have Eyes for You,” as performed by The Flamingoes). The scale of the thing was mesmerizing. The piece itself was familiar—a brand, like an Apple commercial.
The world has come full circle since the 1990s: Now, in its formerly bohemian cities, artists can hardly afford studio space at all. The market for contemporary art has exploded, and some of the most radical gestures mounted by galleries double as their most precious commodities. But with studios disappearing, the artists who are able to indulge in work at the scale of spectacle are even more elite. MFA-enabled artists who can compete at this level—those who aren’t affected by the housing shortage or strapped with student debt—are rewarded with limitless possibility. Spectacle is an economic condition of art.
Rynd says that the Building Museum turned to gestures as a result of the Great Recession. Foundation, grant, and donor support had all dried up in the wake of the economic crisis; the museum needed a splashy, big-ticketed event. In 2011, the museum turned to mini-golf, inviting local architecture firms to design and build holes (for which the firms also secured corporate sponsorships). “Icebergs”—tickets for which cost $16 for adults who aren’t museum members—has its roots in those popular mini-golf courses.
“I’m going to be perfectly honest,” Rynd says. “One [of the factors] was financial.”
The Hirshhorn is planning what is likely to be the biggest spectacle so far: a Yayoi Kusama survey, which opens in February 2017. The show of the Japanese artist’s psychedelic work will no doubt draw the crowds. This survey will showcase major installations by Kusama, including “Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field” (1965), a time-and-space–bending installation, and “The Obliteration Room” (2002), an all-white room that viewers will “obliterate” with colored dot stickers. Selfie heaven.
Kusama is the perfect dish, an artist whose work delights (polka-dotted pumpkins!) but also satisfies. Maintaining the viewing conditions set by the artists will be a challenge for the museum, since demand will be crushingly high, and Kusama meant for some of her environments to be experienced alone. the Hirshhorn will try to manage with timed tickets and other strategies.
For all the photos that will be ’grammed in her “Infinity Mirror Room,” Kusama’s piece is arguably aggressively anti-social. That makes showing it in a contemporary context worthwhile. She made the piece decades before viewers had any way of sharing their experiences with hundreds or thousands or millions of followers. Arguably, it is not the same piece anymore. It no longer confronts viewers, making them feel small and alone in the face of cosmic indifference.
But Kusama in all her glory will never beat out the Rain Room, a trick of engineering by Random International. People lined up for blocks outside the Museum of Modern Art to get into the Rain Room in 2013—sometimes waiting in the rain in order to navigate a room that is about not getting rained on. Pre-order tickets for viewings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are sold out through early October.
Surely those museums saw upticks in attendance from Rain Roomers who wandered into other art exhibitions. People queued up outside the building means more foot traffic through the doors—always a plus. And museum boards, donors, and members are no doubt pleased to see high-water marks for attendance. Even though the Rain Room has nothing whatsoever to do with art.
The drawback to spectacles is that they do the marketing for themselves, a factor felt most keenly by the shows that do not sell themselves well at all—the Blinky Palermos, the Oehme van Swedens. Not only is marketing for the Rain Room practically free, it’s a show that pays out dividends. Hard art shows do not garner millions or thousands or even tens of shares on social media without coordinated, expensive, difficult public-education campaigns. Beyond a bare minimum to get the early word out, “The Beach” doesn’t have to promote itself any more than the actual beach does. The return on investment is plain.
And hard art shows aren’t competing with shallow art shows or hardly art shows; they’re competing with Pokémon Go or the Olympics or any other number of things people could be doing with their time. Museum spectacles, meanwhile, are competing with things like the Rain Room or Dîner en Blanc, public sensations that lack even the pretense of meaning or substance. Museums have to be more than just another thing to do. Museums are the only place to find hard art—whether that’s Ming Dynasty porcelains or Eva Hesse sculptures or Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Rain Rooms make that art harder to see, harder to find. Not just for museum viewers but for museum boards and directors.
Museums are houses for the few. They are there for crowds looking for entertainment or air conditioning, sure. But they were made for viewers seeking specific enlightenment. D.C. museums are betting that spectacles are a way to convert crowds into viewers. That’s the simple answer to spectacles: Trust the viewers.
“Discernment comes with a set of values,” Chiu says. “If people are willing to experience culture, they often start in one place and end up in another.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the Hirshhorn’s annual attendance figures. The figures we quoted were for the three-month period during which the exhibition “SONG1” was on view, not for the entire year.